Vintage Lester spurs Cubs to split with Bucs

Vintage Lester spurs Cubs to split with Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- The Cubs were in retreat, in danger of losing four straight for only the second time in three months to impair their campaign for a favorable postseason position.

Jon Lester would have none of it, going the route on a five-hitter for a 2-1 victory over the Pirates in the nightcap of Tuesday's doubleheader at PNC Park. Confounding hitters with a separation of 21 mph between a 72-mph curve and 93-mph fastball, the left-hander turned in his first complete game of the season and No. 12 in 281 career starts.

"This is what he does," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Lester. "He likes pitching in big games in the latter part of the season. It's not a surprise."

Lester's complete game

The Pirates won the day game, 5-4. With the split, the teams remained four games apart in the National League Wild Card standings -- the Bucs hold the top spot -- and both lost a half-game in the NL Central standings to the Cardinals, who beat the Brewers in extra innings. The Pirates are three games behind St. Louis, and the Cubs seven games out.

"He can throw that ball in a teacup down and in to right-handed hitters," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Lester. "He was changing speeds extremely well, and kept nailing that ball to his glove side down and in … it was tough for us to get the barrel to it."

While Maddon kept five Game 1 starters in his Game 2 lineup -- including Dexter Fowler and Anthony Rizzo, who delivered RBI hits off starter J.A. Happ -- his Pittsburgh counterpart, Hurdle, turned over eight-ninths of his lineup: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was the only one to start both games.

"A few pitches caught too much plate tonight, and they hit a couple doubles," Happ said. "Just tried to zone back in and execute your pitch and be able to mix it up a little bit. For the most part, we were able to do that."

Pirates misfire: In their one genuine shot at Lester, with runners at the corners and none out in the seventh, the Bucs came up with a hard-hit ball -- but Michael Morse's grounder went right at shortstop Addison Russell, who started a double play that allowed a run to score but killed the rally. More >

Russell's nice stop starts DP

Out on a strong limb: The Pirates risked unconventional strategy in the fifth inning -- having the left-handed Happ intentionally walk lefty-hitting Rizzo to load the bases with two outs -- and got away with it when Happ got Starlin Castro to pop out to right to end the inning, keeping the Cubs' lead at 2-0.

"He's got experience [working out of jams], we just haven't seen a lot of it lately, he's been so efficient," Hurdle said of Happ, who had won his previous five starts while allowing a total of three runs in 30 2/3 innings. "He got into some situations where he had to make pitches, slow the game down. He pitched a good game, competed very well."

Happ's eight strikeouts

Challenging play: David Ross doubled to lead off the Cubs' fifth and the Pirates tried to get him at third on Lester's sacrifice. The throw appeared to be in time, but Ross was called safe. The Pirates challenged the call, saying third baseman Aramis Ramirez made the tag in time. After a review, the call was confirmed, and Ross then scored on Fowler's double for a 2-0 lead.

Ross gets third on review

Defense: Javier Baez has primarily played shortstop for the Cubs, and then switched to second when he was called up last season. But on Tuesday, he looked stellar at third, including a nifty barehanded grab of Morse's grounder to end the fourth and strand a runner. This was Baez's fifth start at third -- and Kris Bryant's fifth start in right field -- and he could get more games there. Bryant showed off his glove work when he snared McCutchen's fly ball against the right-field wall to end the sixth.

"That one little chopper that spun and was going to go to his right and he barehanded it was an outstanding play," Maddon said of Baez. "He very calmly picked it up. It was almost like the old Brooks [Robinson], I would say, Graig-Nettles-kind-of-thing where you look at the ball and then throw accurately to first base. It was outstanding." More >

Baez's barehanded play

"That's the goal every time. You see a guy on his game, you know it's going to be tough. He was tough tonight, and they were just a little better than us tonight. That was a great atmosphere tonight ... great."
-- Happ, on the challenge posed by a great competitor like Lester

"We'll sleep pretty good. They'll leave having lost, we'll leave having won. Night game tomorrow, by that time, they're pretty good and they'll be ready to roll. But it's nice to leave having won. There's something about leaving the building having won."
-- Maddon, on splitting the doubleheader

The Pirates had won 12 consecutive one-run decisions at home; the loss dropped their season record in one-run games in PNC Park to 21-6.

Cubs: Jake Arrieta will try for his Major League-leading 20th win on Wednesday when the Cubs play the third game of their four-game series against the Pirates. The last Cubs' 20-game winner was Jon Lieber, who went 20-6 in 2001. Arrieta has thrown 16 consecutive quality starts, and is 13-1 with a 1.00 ERA in that stretch. First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 p.m. CT.

Pirates: After wrapping up Tuesday's twin bill, the Bucs will resume their four-game set against the Cubs at 7:05 ET on Wednesday in PNC Park, handing A.J. Burnett his second start since a stint on the disabled list.

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Carrie Muskat is a reporter for She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat and listen to her podcast. Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer and on his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.